Procrastination = Fear

I’ve known this for a long time. It’s an old chestnut of productivity gurus – procrastinators aren’t lazy, it’s simply a way of processing (or not processing, rather) some sort of fear associated with the task that’s being put off. In my case, in just about every piece I write, sooner or later I find myself procrastinating. I procrastinate before starting a piece because I’m concerned about not working out my materials correctly and that this will mean I can’t develop the piece how I want to. I procrastinate at the end of a piece – usually until I’m sick to death of it, as now – because I’m paralysed by the notion that it’s not the absolute best work I could have done with those materials. I procrastinate in between because of the fear that I’ll choose the wrong path and not know it until I’m too close to the deadline to change it.

Drowning Songs has also brought a whole new fear to the fore – one I’ve been aware of but never really addressed in any significant way: the fear of not really knowing what it sounds like. Without a workshop stage in the process of writing this piece, I’m effectively sending it off without having any concrete evidence to show me whether it’s going to work.

There’s going to be a lot of this this year, I suspect. Most of my previous music has been written within the confines of computer programmes that play back what I’ve written, so that while I still need to balance the sounds they make with my knowledge of how real instruments will sound, I have a pretty good idea of how it all fits together. Not so with Drowning Songs. There’s a few bars towards the end that are ‘normal’, where the parts are synchronised and a computer can show me that they’ll ‘work’. But much of the rest of the piece is unsynchronised, much of the material is unpitched, much relies on the effect of how a group of singers work together. To the point where I’m currently experiencing massive procrastination because I’m terrified that the whole thing’s going to be a disaster because I don’t have the level of control, of certainty, that I’ve come to rely on.

Which is, of course, the point. A Sketchbook of Mushrooms was all about letting go, about NOT controlling every aspect, embracing the random and seeing what would happen. And this project is about taking that a step further – not just loosening up my hold on my materials but actively building performer freedom and flexibility into my music, embracing the possibility of dissonance, of clamour, of confusion in a bid to create an end result that draws out a stronger emotional response from the listener than my previous carefully aligned work.

Even in the face of fear, though, this piece must be finished. I need to remind myself continually that Drowning Songs is part of a research process. I need to commit to an approach, put it on paper, send it off, see what happens. And only once I’ve seen what happens can I assess whether the approach I’ve taken works or not. If it doesn’t I’ll be disappointed. I know this. I accept it. But disappointment doesn’t preclude the possibility of learning something extremely valuable – possibly more valuable than if the piece is a raging success and nothing needs to be changed at all.

Considering the audience

In our latest ‘All Composers’ session, the question of whether we do or should consider our audience when writing was raised. Now, I know well that this is a question that’s kind of been done to death and this is not a post about whether composers in general should or shouldn’t. I don’t think that discussion is particularly helpful. What I do think is helpful is for individual composers to consider the role the audience plays in what they do and how they perceive what they do.

For me, I don’t think I do really consider the audience that much while I’m writing. I’m more interested by what I feel to be the internal drive of the piece, about creating something that to me feels satisfying and that is appropriate to the situation I’m writing it for – if it’s something I’m writing for a particular performer, what are their strengths, weaknesses, interests and things they want to work on? if it’s a piece I’m just writing for fun, then what parameters (if any) do I want to set myself?

What I do think I do, which I hadn’t really considered before, is to spend a fair bit of time stepping back from a piece and trying to consider it from an audience member’s perspective – does it hang together? If I pretend I don’t know what’s coming next, does this bit still work? what is the overall structural balance like?

In the context of needing to push myself to take more risks, I wonder whether this step in the process might not actually be counterproductive – is this the point at which I sanitise music that might be less conventional to fit into some mould I’m not even conscious of trying to fit? Do the things which sound unbalanced to me actually sound excitingly wobbly to other people? I’m thinking now that these are questions I probably should be exploring. Sometimes, certainly, this process can take a pedestrian section of a piece and make it more interesting, but maybe more would be learned by just writing it, giving it to performers, then hearing it and writing a new piece which learns from what’s been done in the workshop. I guess this is largely what my work on A Sketchbook of Mushrooms was tackling, although I didn’t think of it in these terms at the time.

I think too that this stepping-back process could be part of why I’ve gone through such major periods of stuckness on pieces such as Red on Black on Maroon and Carrion Comfort, so at the very least a period of experimentation with this idea is probably worth a go…

What do you think? What role does the audience (either real or imagined) play in the development of your creative work? Is it important to you for your work to be perceived in a certain way?

(And look! I got through the whole post without mentioning Milton Babbitt! Go me!)

Procrastination, perfectionism or sheer terror

Why finishing a piece is sometimes the hardest part

Rothko Quartet fragmentEnding a piece can sometimes be even harder than starting one. The fear of the empty page is one we all face regularly, but the fear of ending is another thing entirely.

It can stem from all sorts of issues: perfectionism, where we want everything to be just right before we send it out into the world and so tinker manically with tiny details instead of drawing a double bar line and having done with it; procrastination – for whatever reason we just can’t make ourselves work on it – this could be boredom, lack of ideas, a niggling feeling that something’s not right and it “just needs time” to sort itself out; or maybe it’s just fear – of what the world thinks of it, of what we’re going to do when we no longer have this security-blanket fallback piece to work on.

I’ve been working on my string quartet based on Rothko’s Seagram Murals since October now. Eight months. And still the wretched thing isn’t finished. This piece has dragged on so long that it now has its own hashtag: #stringquartetofdoom and I’m beginning to doubt whether I CAN finish it.

I’ve been here before, of course – the 3 minutes of Carrion Comfort that took 9 months to write looms large in my memory. And given my history, eight months on a 12-minute piece isn’t that bad really, but I need it done and into rehearsal before my lovely quartet skip off on their well-earned holidays.

I think the quartet (really must stop calling it the String Quartet of Doom and find it a proper title) falls a little into all three categories. I’ve felt a strong affinity for the material ever since I came up with it, so it’s become a bit of a security blanket – I like listening back to it, even in Finale’s dodgy rendering – but I’m also getting tetchy and bored with it because I’ve been doing battle with the same notes for so freaking long now. I’m concerned that after all this time it won’t turn out as well as I hope it will, which is a real worry as it represents what will be about a third of my final recital grade. I keep going back over stuff I’ve already written and tweaking it to be better instead of writing new stuff and then there’s just plain old procrastination because I’m fretting about certain problems with it (and whether they are problems at all or just differences of opinion but that’s a whole other blog post).

Obviously the answer is “just get on and finish it” – which I’ll do once I’ve finished this post… I hacked the end off it last night because I wasn’t at all happy with it, and am feeling much better about the whole thing since doing that.

So today I need to re-launch myself into it. Suppress that fear and just get cracking. And in aid of that, I’m posting what I have out here in the cold outside world. It’s helped before, to make me less attached to what I have, so here’s hoping it works now too! Seven minutes down, five to go…

Listen to the latest version of the Rothko quartet:

[sc_embed_player fileurl="/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Rothko-Quartet-DRAFT.mp3"]

(my humble apologies too for the excessive reverb on this – Finale seems to want everything to sound like it’s in a cathedral since I reinstalled – will work it out eventually!)

An Advent Project

As it seems I have quite a bit to do* this month, I’ve decided to treat the month as a project, along the lines of Creative Pact or RPM Challenge and blog my progress daily, for an assortment of reasons.

If you’re interested in watching this unfold, the posts will be over at my creativity blog One Creative Thing so they don’t clutter things up too much here. See the current Advent Project posts at

Any cheers of encouragement are most welcome in the comments 🙂

*understatement of the year

The pitfalls of perfectionism

I have a confession: I’m a perfectionist. I always spend far too long on pretty much everything I write, tweaking and poking and looking for that point where the whole thing seems to balance on a pin. So far it’s worked out OK for me. I mean, people quite often say rather nice things about my music, so I must be doing something right, yes?

But it bugs me, this perfectionism. I am positively green with envy for people who can dash off a piece in a weekend – my 60-second solo violin piece, Diabolus, which was supposed to be a quick project, took me 3 weeks to complete. The 3 minutes of Carrion Comfort has taken 10 months! So on my private list of things to work on this year, and especially with the prospect of a Masters degree coming up, has been to experiment with some techniques to get the writing happening faster.

My feeling is that if I can write faster and fuss less over the tiny details, then maybe I’ll learn more. In David Bayles & Ted Orland’s fantastic book Art and Fear, one of the authors tells a story:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated a “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorising about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

This story makes me wonder: if I’m currently someone who only had to produce one pot, and the work of those producing many pots was ultimately better – how much better could my work be if I could make myself loosen up and produce many more works in the time I’d usually take to write one?

So this month, I’ve let myself be talked into doing the RPM Challenge. It’s a bit like NaNoWriMo or Creative Pact, but the goal is to record an album (10 tracks or 35 minutes) over the course of February – that’s 2-3 recordings a week! Obviously for me to even try to write 2-3 pieces a week would be seriously jumping in the deep end, so I’m setting myself a goal of writing 4-5 pieces in the month – about one a week – and the rest of the work will be finishing off recordings of other pieces I have that have been languishing without even decent MIDI recordings for far too long.

If you want to follow my progress, I’ll be blogging it (more or less) daily over at One Creative Thing – and of course, burbling about it regularly on Twitter.

If you want to join in, please do! You can find out more at the RPM Challenge website and join up, then post a comment here with the address of your blog or SoundCloud feed or wherever you’ll be documenting it.

Composition as an instrument: ‘Relaxation’ as practice

Today Jay C. Batzner posted an excellent article on his blog entitled Composition as an instrument. In it he looks at how composition often takes a back seat to instrumental practice and how ‘composition’ should really be viewed as an instrument, with the same practice requirements as playing the flute or viola da gamba.

I think he’s entirely right on this matter, but I think that approaching composition as an instrument raises a particular issue to do with the perception of composition work by outsiders.

This problem is that much of what composers consider to be ‘composition’, to the rest of the world looks suspiciously like ‘lazing about’.

Listening, reading and thinking while staring into space are just as much a part of creating a new piece of music as the actual sitting at the piano or computer, putting dots on pieces of paper. It can be incredibly hard to justify these parts of composition to other members of the household who are grumbling because they think you should be doing the vacuuming.

It can also be incredibly hard to justify them to yourself. They’re enjoyable things, generally considered ‘leisure activities’ and much of the work going on is happening behind the scenes, so to speak, and almost on automatic pilot (because composers are almost always analysing the music they hear and searching for new and interesting sounds), so it also feels like a leisure activity, even when in actual fact it’s proper work.

I think this is one of the reasons I bake. When I’m baking, my brain is free to roam about while my hands follow the instructions in the book. I can listen to music when I bake and my mind can be mostly on the listening and analysing without fear of messing anything up in any major way, or any disruptive noises interfering (I can’t effectively listen to music while cooking sausages, for example, because the sizzle gets in the way). And of course I’m baking, so I neither look nor feel idle, so there’s no guilt factor. Plus anyone else in house gets muffins or whatever at the end of it which helps them get over their problem with the vacuuming.

Of course, what this largely comes down to is other people’s perceptions of what we’re doing. Looking at performance and composition in the way Batzner does, and thinking about how those activities are perceived, a composer sitting in a comfy chair, staring into space while listening to a CD and thinking hard about this instrument doubling or that turn of harmony and how this information can be incorporated into that tricky section that won’t come right in the current piece is is not perceptually equivalent to a violinist picking up her instrument and ploughing through a bunch of scales, regardless of how much or little thought she’s putting into that activity. When there’s no visible action, it’s hard for others to tell that work is even happening, far less give it its true value.

I know that I personally have a problem with this, which is why I have to give myself regular pep talks about doing more listening, more score-reading, more book reading. It’s why most of my music-book reading happens on the train, and most of my listening happens in the kitchen. It’s partly why I started going for walks in the morning – to get some thinking and listening time (and to count squirrels, of course, which I just find enjoyable. Hey, I’m Australian – we don’t have anything that cute that ventures into the city!) and it’s why, now that I’m working freelance, I don’t emerge from my burrow till quite late – I’m awake and just taking the opportunity for a good quiet think about what I’m working on, how I’m going to tackle it, and what I might do next.

What goes into your practice time? Tell us in the comments!

Testing assumptions and breaking through resistance

Resistance is a nuisance. One of the hardest things in the world can be working out the best way in which to kill off resistance and destroy the excuses we make to not do things we really want to do. This week I discovered that testing assumptions can make an excellent starting point for doing just that.

I’m currently using my dayjob knowledge to explore a bunch of different options to discover how I can best use the internet to promote my music & that of other composers. I read a lot of stuff around this topic to give me ideas – marketing blogs, sales training, productivity articles and so on. Somehow I ended up on the list of Ramit Sethi, author of a book and website called I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Now, I have low expectations of what “rich” looks like to a classical composer, but I find that these sorts of blogs are often very good for productivity tips and marketing and can yield some real gems.

Last week yielded such a gem. Ramit linked to a post on testing your assumptions. His point was that assumptions can hold you back from achieving your goals (e.g. you don’t enter a competition because that ensemble only commissions [insert style you don’t write in] music).

And, golly gosh, he’s right! My work on Carrion Comfort has made me increasingly uncomfortable with my approach of only working on one piece at a time. I’ve been working on it for six months now, and at times it starts to feel like a bit of a chore because there’s no getting away from it. I wondered how my friends who have multiple pieces on the go most of the time manage it. I thought about why I’ve always been a compositional serial monogamist and I came up with the following answer:

I worry that if I’m not working only on one piece, my concentration will suffer and the music will turn out to be crap.

Right there: three big fat juicy assumptions sitting in front of my nose, blocking my way

  1. I assumed that I wouldn’t be able to focus on more than one piece at a time
  2. I assumed that what I created under such circumstances would be crap
  3. I assumed that it actually mattered if they were crap

Well, piffle!

  1. Won’t know until I try
  2. Won’t know until I try
  3. Doesn’t matter (unless everything I write if I’m working like this does turn out to be crap, but again – won’t know until I try)

There go all my excuses! So I am now resolved to get a second piece underway as soon as possible. I did try to jump right in but kind of failed – the film score that’s come back from the dead needs a different cut than the director’s sent me and he’s away; and the recorder quartet needs the catalogue of the Tate’s recent Miro exhibition to get me back into it but I’ve had to order it online and am still waiting… so I need to identify a new new piece and THEN jump right in.

What assumptions are holding you back right now? Think you can destroy them? Let’s take a leaf out of Ramit’s book: post your troublesome assumptions in the comments then let me know how you get on with blitzing them in the next couple of days!

Creativity/productivity: Improving creative workflow

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on how the Pomodoro Technique helped me to overcome writer’s block. But half the battle with any sort of creative work – not least composition – is not the starting or the ending, but the continuing. It’s the bit where every day you go back to your work, pick up where you left off, and keep going in a consistent manner. Today I’m going to write about how the Pomodoro Technique helps with this too – via a neat little productivity trick called the Hemingway Hack.

Ernest Hemingway’s working habit was “always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next”. Don’t finish your thought, don’t even finish the sentence or the phrase – keep it for next time. And in between now and then, try not to think about it.

It seems like madness – if you’ve got a great idea, why wouldn’t you put it in place? Why would you run the risk of it evaporating between the end of one session and the beginning of another?

The answer is that by not putting everything down, by not finishing the phrase, the brain has something to quietly work on behind the scenes, ready for the next session. It doesn’t have to stress about thinking up shiny new ideas because it already has one that’s quietly maturing and spawning new ideas without you really being involved. And even better, when you make yourself abandon your work before you’re finished, it provides its own incentive to get back to it.

The Pomodoro Technique, with its structure of 25-minute blocks of uninterrupted productivity, separated by 5-10 minute breaks, is a perfect ready-made framework for testing out the Hemingway Hack because it works on two different levels. It applies between work sessions (so long as they’re not too far apart), but it also works in miniature between the individual pomodori of a single session.

My work session can be determined by how many pomodori I want to spend on my project rather than just working until the ideas run out. I’m more likely to feel great about the work I’ve done, rather than depleted and worried about whether I can come up with something tomorrow. And the best bit? I don’t need to decide “this is the bit I’m going to leave unfinished” – I stop when the timer says I should stop. And then I stop thinking about it.1

I find this a great technique for keeping work on a composition moving along. It’s very easy to implement, and works brilliantly if you’re trying to get into the habit of doing your work every day. Give it a go and let me know in the comments how you get on!


1. This bit is the hard part 🙂 Hemingway used to read work by contemporary writers after he’d finished writing. He says “If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day… To keep my mind off writing sometimes after I had worked I would read writers who were writing then” Hemingway on Writing, pp. 42-43

Awesomeness: Anglepoise

Photo of an Anglepoise Type75 silver lampYes, today I’m talking lamps. I have a confession to make: I am a total daylight junkie. If I don’t have natural light in my workspace, I can’t work. I’m happiest beside, in front of, or preferably IN a large window.

The desk in my bedroom at my parents’ house in Sydney was amazing. My mother had bay windows built onto all the bedrooms, and into mine and the one that is my father’s study, we had desks built in that run the full length of the window. So that desk had glass on four sides – the front and sides, plus the glass roof of the bay window, looking out into the bush and shielded from the sun by the trees. It was lovely – like sitting outside but without the bugs. And with reverse-cycle air-conditioning. Awesome… *sigh*

Anyway, so ever since then, I’ve craved workspaces that have lots of light and space around them. If I’m facing a blank wall or the light’s bad, I can’t work.

While I was trying to fix up my workspace in our previous house and thinking about why it was that I needed so much space and light, I was contemplating lighting and my friend the artist Simone O’Callaghan told me in no uncertain terms to get an Anglepoise lamp with a daylight bulb. And oh my goodness, she was right.

The Anglepoise design is perfect. Just perfect. It sheds light without getting in the way or showing the glare of a naked bulb, the arm is easily moved around to wherever you need it. And the daylight bulb is possibly the best invention ever. Natural colours, gentle but bright light on what you’re working on so your eyes don’t get as tired as with normal bulbs. Often I forget that it’s even on. It’s just so right.

And now my Anglepoise has become part of my work routine. Switching on the lamp is my signal to myself that I’m starting work for the day – once the light is on, I’m working and focused (strangely enough, even when I’m not at my desk…). In her book The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp talks about rituals for getting started – hers is getting up at unreasonable o’clock and getting in a cab to go to the gym. Mine is switching on my lovely silver Anglepoise. And coffee. Of course coffee.

What’s your getting-started ritual?

Overcoming writer’s block: Composition and the Pomodoro Technique

Long dry spells are hard for any artist to deal with. For ten years I struggled to overcome writer’s block – after finishing university, I lost my sense of where I was going, then got sidelined by a ‘real job’ and the music faded away. But I finally found a cure, thanks to a perceptive physiotherapist and the Pomodoro Technique.

A decade of writer’s block

In spite of not having written anything much in five years, when I moved to the UK I still thought of myself as a composer. One day I suddenly realised just how little music I’d been writing and I began to doubt whether I could ever compose anything worthwhile again.

Over the next four years I worked to try to understand why I was blocked and why even composing a simple two-part invention felt like trying to write the Ring Cycle. I’d find a little time. I’d force myself to try to compose something. And then I’d get overwhelmed by work, or just the sheer struggle of it all and stop again. And each time that happened the frustration and feelings of inadequacy increased.

From writer’s block to regular composition

At the end of 2009, I sprained my ankle very badly. I started seeing a physiotherapist but I wasn’t making much progress and after a while – and a lot of lovely chats – she sat me down and told me that she thought the frustration I was feeling about my composition was holding back the healing process. She decided that I should compose as part of my treatment.

Even thinking about music had come to feel rather like standing at the edge of an abyss, but as I’d just started experimenting with the Pomodoro Technique at work and was seeing good results from it, I thought it might help. I started with reading – just one pomodoro a day: a chapter of Richard Vella’s Musical Environments, then some reading related to a set of songs I’d been struggling to finish for a couple of years.

After a few days, I decided that in my session for the day, I’d just listen to those songs and get to know them again. Before I knew it, I’d tweaked this and adjusted something else. I didn’t even realise I was composing until the timer rang to mark the end of the session. Without the pressure I’d been putting myself under, I saw where things needed to be and just put them there without really thinking about it.

Using this technique, I gradually finished the Three Whitman Songs and moved straight on to an arrangement I’d been having terrible trouble with. Pomodoroed that one and started composing a new piece, which ended up as Deconstruct: Point, line, plane, the most ambitious and (some have kindly said) the best thing I’d ever written.

25 minutes to make composition a habit, not a hobby

Working in short, focused blocks showed me that I didn’t need large chunks of time to do good work. It’s not hard to schedule 25 minutes a day, and it’s long enough to get some real momentum going. Even if you’re tired, 25 minutes is doable – set the timer and just do the work. Nine times out of ten, if I could make myself start one pomodoro, I’d get so involved that I’d move on to a second when the first was done.

The Pomodoro Technique helped me not only to overcome writer’s block, but to stop playing at being a composer and start working at it. That’s an overused phrase, but the difference is vast once you work out what you need to do – and then the work feels more like play than the play ever did. I don’t need my timer that much now for composition, but I know it’s there for those days when it all seems too much like hard work.

What’s your experience of writer’s block? Tell us how you overcome it in the comments!